Writing a biography is not psychoanalysis

From a talk given by the biographer Brenda Maddox at the Institute of Psychoanalysis, in London, as part of the 'On the Way Home' series

Share

Biography does have some things in common with psychoanalysis. I believe that the child is father to the man, that the early life counts. In my books I give the relationship to the mother a lot of attention. I also believe personal letters reveal more than the writer intended. I always keep an eye out for what the words are saying beyond the manifest meaning.

Biography does have some things in common with psychoanalysis. I believe that the child is father to the man, that the early life counts. In my books I give the relationship to the mother a lot of attention. I also believe personal letters reveal more than the writer intended. I always keep an eye out for what the words are saying beyond the manifest meaning.

That said, "psycho-babble" is not a word you hope to see in your reviews. Yet, if you are conscious of the unconscious and the importance of childhood, you constantly invite this sneer. I try to avoid it by not using explicit theory or psychological jargon. I knew I was taking a risk in my biography of WB Yeats when, after a discussion of his marriage at the late age of 52 to a woman of 25 and subsequent communication with supposed ghosts, I flashed back to his late mother and her combination of indifference to her eldest son and her story-telling gift. I thought it important to show why a successful poet of mature years suddenly acquired a dependence on voices from beyond.

Something else that biographers and analysts perhaps have in common is a distanced relationship with the personality before them. People are always asking biographers, "But do you like him or her?", as if you had to be half in love with the subject in order to do your job. For me, liking has nothing to do with it, and this must be the same for analysts as well. I've chosen my subjects because there was something new to say - perhaps because of new material or a new approach opening up. However, maybe like doctors, you don't have to like your subjects at the start, but by the end you can't help but like them, having seen them through so much.

Like analysts, biographers have to construct a narrative out of chaotic experience. You have to decide where the climactic points are while allowing for the silences and gaps in life, the times of depression or illness, or there is simply nothing much happening. I do try to hold myself back from identifying too much with my subject and substituting my reactions for theirs. At the same time I do draw, as perhaps analysts do, on my own experience and try to benefit from some personal chords that the material releases. My research into Nora Joyce took me back to memories of my Massachusetts childhood, watching a neighbour, an Irish woman married to an Italian, weeping every St Patrick's Day - as Nora did - thinking of the parties back home she was missing.

A biographer, however, has the great advantage of all kinds of objective evidence in addition to what the subject offers about him or herself. Also - a big advantage for me, who has a grasshopper mind - you can be erratic in your working routine while analysts are locked into their rigid appointment schedules. I sit at my desk every day, but I shift from chapter to chapter, work on the whole book at once, and welcome interruptions. I wouldn't advise this method to anybody else, it's just the way I do it.

The glaring difference, to me, between analysis and biography is that I'm not trying to heal anybody. I'm trying to produce a finished, readable, non-libellous book for the publisher who's contracted it. Biography is not a profession. There are no entry requirements. If you can get somebody to print your words, you're a writer, or a journalist. In a profession like analysis you have to be admitted by a board, which can also kick you out.

My restraints are the law of copyright and libel, and the contract with my publishers. True, a book deadline is nowhere as strict as a deadline in journalism. Even so, you have to finish by an certain agreed time, and you do know when you have reached the end. That's certainly not true of what I know about psychoanalysis.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: UX Consultant

£35000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: You will be working with a 8 st...

Recruitment Genius: Part-time Editor

£8000 - £12000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A unique opportunity has arisen ...

Recruitment Genius: Field Sales Executive

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: An exceptional opportunity has arisen for a pa...

Recruitment Genius: Kitchen and Bathroom Installers

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This provider of designer kitch...

Day In a Page

Read Next
A blackbird gets to grips with a pyracantha bush  

Nature Studies: Summer didn’t end today, it’s been over for a fortnight

Michael McCarthy
Jeremy Corbyn is widely tipped to become the Labour Party's next leader  

Whatever happens in the Labour leadership race, Jeremy Corbyn’s candidacy is not a calamity

Steve Richards
Orthorexia nervosa: How becoming obsessed with healthy eating can lead to malnutrition

Orthorexia nervosa

How becoming obsessed with healthy eating can lead to malnutrition
Lady Chatterley is not obscene, says TV director

Lady Chatterley’s Lover

Director Jed Mercurio on why DH Lawrence's novel 'is not an obscene story'
Farmers in tropical forests are training ants to kill off bigger pests

Set a pest to catch a pest

Farmers in tropical forests are training ants to kill off bigger pests
Mexico: A culture that celebrates darkness as an essential part of life

The dark side of Mexico

A culture that celebrates darkness as an essential part of life
Being sexually assaulted was not your fault, Chrissie Hynde. Don't tell other victims it was theirs

Being sexually assaulted was not your fault, Chrissie Hynde

Please don't tell other victims it was theirs
A nap a day could save your life - and here's why

A nap a day could save your life

A midday nap is 'associated with reduced blood pressure'
If men are so obsessed by sex, why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?

If men are so obsessed by sex...

...why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?
The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3

Jon Thoday and Richard Allen-Turner

The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3
The bathing machine is back... but with a difference

Rolling in the deep

The bathing machine is back but with a difference
Part-privatised tests, new age limits, driverless cars: Tories plot motoring revolution

Conservatives plot a motoring revolution

Draft report reveals biggest reform to regulations since driving test introduced in 1935
The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

The honours that shame Britain

Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

International Tap Festival comes to the UK

Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border